Conservator's choice from the Metropolis exhibition

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As I mentioned yesterday, the fantastic Metropolis exhibition closes this week. The exhibition is packed full of incredibly detailed photographs of recognisable Liverpool landmarks and some unfamiliar places.

The project team for the exhibition had the difficult task of selecting just 60 photographs for display from almost 200,000 negatives in the Stewart Bale collection. Here Nicky Lewis from Paper Conservation explains a bit about this process and chooses her favourite Metropolis shot:


"Picking a favourite Stewart Bale photograph is not an easy task.

During the image selection process for Metropolis: capturing modern Liverpool I spent time, as part of the project team, weighing up the merits of many of Bale’s photographs. We searched the archive for striking images that best portrayed Liverpool as a developing, modern metropolis- a reflection of the city today. The most difficult part was choosing only 60.

To me Abbey Cinema exterior is a stunning photograph - much more Hollywood than Wavertree. By taking the image at night the photographer could exploit the building’s illuminated architecture. You can see why we chose this as an image to enlarge for the exhibition.

I‘m also captivated by Crowds at the launch of Mauretania II. The launch of a ship was obviously a very popular event in those days, something we no longer experience. The amount of detail in the photograph is exceptional. Take a look at the extent people will go to for a good view. Some are perched on top of shed roofs and cars, whilst other dare-devils cling to steel work. 

That brings me to my favourite Metropolis image. It is not a highly iconic shot and does not depict a famous event or landmark architecture. It is Anglia Vans on the Assembly Line. Obviously Ford played an important role in Liverpool’s history and the image shows cutting edge technology of the time but my reason for picking it is much more personal. We always wanted to include ‘never-seen-before’ images from the Bale archive in the exhibition, not an easy task considering that our film negatives are frozen to stop them deteriorating (see How have the photographs survived? for more detail).

Using the order books from the Bale company combined with documentation from the storage process we were able to pinpoint a box (out of just over 1300), that contained images commissioned by Ford - we had no idea what they would look like however. The box was removed from its freezer and transferred to an insulated bag, where it would defrost at a slow rate. Twenty-four hours later, after removing the protective packaging layers I had a bundle of film negatives. It’s so thrilling to be the first person to look at these images since they were originally commissioned- you just never know what you may find.

As you look through them on the light box, the anticipation builds and you fear the image you are hoping for isn’t there... Then in a eureka moment it appears. The image stood out instantly as fitting the Metropolis theme and had all of the expected high qualities of a Stewart Bale work. Its composition is striking, with the assembly belt giving a great line of perspective. Not only is it satisfying to have brought this image into public view but I also see it as a symbol of how much hidden potential the Stewart Bale archive has.

NML’s long term aim is to digitise the Stewart Bale collection, to allow the public to view them more easily."

man standing by row of vans on a factory production line

Detail of Anglia vans on assembly line at Halewood factory, 1965